The Ethics of Speeding Tickets

Yesterday I reported on an organization in Los Angeles that has convinced Mayor Eric Garcetti to reconsider Los Angeles’ high parking ticket fees. They propose that the fees should be set according to Bureau of Labor Statistics’ median hourly wage, which currently stands at $23. Break the law, lose an hour’s wage. Eminently reasonable.

Except “median hourly wage” means that half of those employed make less than that. That’s correct—half of all workers in the United States make less than $23/hour. And if we look at just Los Angeles, that figure drops to $18.32. Which is to say, half of those working in Los Angeles earn less—often far less—than even the new proposed parking ticket fee.

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This might not seem like a big deal in of itself. It’s still just $20. But consider what this means for another traffic violation: speeding. In California, if you’re going 10 miles over the speed limit, the baseline ticket fee is $35.

Now that doesn’t sound too bad. In fact, you might wonder, why isn’t it higher? Because speeding isn’t just an irritant, like overstaying your welcome at a meter. It can put yourself and others in danger.  In fact, according to a 2012 study of the Governors’ Highway Safety Association, one third of all fatalities involve speeding. In 2010, that was 10, 530 deaths on highways alone.

But as it turns out $35 is not what you pay for the lowest speeding tickets. Because the state immediately adds a 20 percent surcharge to the initial charge—that’s $7; then it tacks on another $10 for every $10 of the fine—that’s $40 more. The county in which you get caught also adds $7 for every $10—that’s $28.

There’s another $4 for every $10 added for a DNA Identification Fund, and $5 for a State Court Construction—that adds $36. $2 for every $10 is added for Emergency Medical Services (regardless of whether they’re required or not); a flat $4 is added for Emergency Medical Air Transportation (ditto); $40 for court operations assessment, $35 for criminal conviction assessment, and $1 for Night Court Assessment (ditto, ditto and ditto).

Putting that all together, that “$35” ticket for going 75 mph in a 65 on a California highway will actually cost you $234.

If you’re going more than 15 miles over the speeding limit, the cost jumps to $360. More than 25 and it’s $480.

California speeding ticket fees have gone up by a factor of eight since 1993. In 2013 Esurance also ranked California fourth highest in terms of tickets dispensed. The state pulls in more than $500 million each year on tickets.

And believe it or not, the ticket is still just the start of the pain. As the website Nerd Wallet laid out late last year, just the lowest speeding ticket leads on average to a rise of 15 percent in car insurance in the state of California—roughly $160/year, for three years. And depending on which city you’re from, it can be far worse. An Angelino, for instance, will see on average a rise of $230/year for three years.  That “$35” ticket will cost them over $900.

In an era where states have been struggling financially—while California’s budget is back to surplus, its state debt was $778 billion at the start of last year, more than double that of the next highest state—tickets are an obvious place to turn. You’ve got the perp on the hook. If you don’t accept the states’ rate, what else can you do? Lose your license?

It turns out, people do—many, many people.  A recent report by a coalition of legal aid groups has concluded that more than 4 million Californians—that’s over 10 percent of the state’s population—have lost their licenses from either not paying their fines or failing to appear in court. And by and large, these are not rich kids who were joyriding in Daddy’s Lexus; these are people who can’t afford to pay what would amount to more than twelve times their hourly wage (not including the rise in their insurance) for what amounts in most situations to a non-serious traffic offense.

And again—twelve times is just for the drivers who earn LA’s median hourly wage of $18.32. Half of all laborers here make less.

In his new autobiography Frank, former Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank notes that when he was working for the Mayor of Boston, he quickly discovered that the reason that a highway gets built right through a poor neighborhood often has less to do with race than with class. “In many realms, official action has disproportionately negative effects on those bereft of income and political influence.” The people with no money are much more apt to be forgotten in policy formation, because they’ve got far fewer resources to make themselves heard.

$234 probably won’t pay the rent most places in California. (Though $900 might for some.) But for a lot of people, not having that money could put the rent in jeopardy, or the car payment, or gas. It could even make it difficult to put food on the table. 

Safety is an essential concern. But so is justice. A state concerned with the welfare of all its citizens must find a way to factor in both. 

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